Black Is Not Always in Fashion

Michelle Obama's fashion choices reopens discussion on the lack of diversity in modeling


Alisa Gumbs

A few years ago I interviewed model-turned-entrepreneur Norma Jean Darden for our September 2006 cover story, Models Inc. She spent the early part of our conversation reminiscing on the early days of her career when she and fellow model Audrey Smaltz would picket the major fashion magazines, which didn’t use black models at the time. And she told a particularly disturbing tale of the time she answered a casting call for the college issue of Mademoiselle.

“I got all dressed up in a beautiful suit, and patent leather shoes, and a red coat, and I went in with my pictures,” Darden recalled. “When I got up to the secretary, she said to me, ‘Deliveries are at the back entrance.’ I just looked at her. And I said, ‘I’ve come to be a model.’ She said, ‘Well this is a white woman’s privilege.’”

Since everything in fashion comes into style again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that more than 30 years later it seems some modern casting agents feel the same way. Not to say that there hasn’t been progress in the modeling industry. But these days it seems that all the talk is about the white-washing of the runways.

This week the Website of New York magazine posted a video of fashion icon Iman, who appeared on our September 2006 cover with Tyra Banks, interviewing Somalian model Ubah Hassan, who was featured in Italian Vogue’s “black issue” last year and is the face of Ralph Lauren this spring. The women discussed how upsetting it is when the stylists and agents who are casting runway shows declare–despite the so-called Obama effect of an increase in diverse models since last year–that they’re not using black models, “this season.”

The next day, former model Donna Michelle Anderson posted a provocative blog on The Huffington Post asking whether some of the major American designers who have been complaining that they are being ignored by First Lady Michelle Obama, are getting their karmic due for ignoring black models. What’s more, she includes a list of those designers who had lily-white runways during the most recent Fashion Week in New York–so you can put your money where your outrage is.

  • It’s amazing that when it’s in style to like all things ‘black’ (culture, style, music, etc) everyone including White/Corporate America wants to cash in and jump on the band wagon. Look what happened with the music industry. Huge deals and $ was spent to support and promote even negative stereotypes for profit. They would never have before partnered with what they had before considered distasteful. Right now the Obama’s are ‘In Style’ and everyone wants to cash in. People seem to not forget that this couple comes from a root of principles and a place that not all of America can relate to. Their choices may not be America’s choices or the status quo choices and America may not understand.

    No different for fashion. Michelle is her own woman. A Black woman with a history of having to make her own way when there was a way not made for her. Why would she forget that now just because she’s in the white house? Were those designers fighting to dress her before? Or others who looked like her? When we start creating and supporting our own as a means of providing a platform not as a means of exclusion, money talks. Our designers and models need people to finance and market shows and create a new buzz. That’s across all industries. Not to sound cliche but we do need to support, circulate and spend BIG $$ in our community — across all industries including Fashion.

  • Tiffany Townsell

    Bravo Ms. Gumbs! Imagine such audacity…they don’t use Black models but, they are outraged that this fabulous Black woman won’t advertise for them? First Lady Obama should be commended for giving so many up and coming designers a chance that they may not have ever gotten. I am proud of her for being authentic. Keep up the great work Black Enterprise!

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